WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has a blunt assessment of Hawaii’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — “objectively terrible.”

From top to bottom, Hawaii’s government officials have failed to listen to scientific and public health experts and take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief funds sent to help the state control the virus, he says.

Instead, the administrations of Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell have let politics interfere with decision making and public safety, Schatz believes.

In an interview with Civil Beat, one of the biggest criticisms Schatz had of the state’s response was its focus on trying to control the virus by cracking down on people coming to the islands through the airport. The 14-day travel quarantine was just one of many things that needed to happen that didn’t, he said.

Senator Brian Schatz Democrats Unity Breakfast 2018.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has serious concerns with how Hawaii has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Too often, he said, the media and local politicians focused on the “scofflaws” and social media personalities who traveled to the islands only to get caught violating the state’s quarantine. That only exacerbated the false belief that Hawaii could protect itself with “faux border security.”

“We spent all of our time worrying about one or two idiots running around the state from the mainland when we should have been building up our public health infrastructure to be ready for the virus being among us,” Schatz said. “Tourism is not the main cause of the spread. We are the main cause of the spread. And shame on us for believing that we could do whatever we wanted here locally as long as we didn’t let anybody fly in. That’s not how this virus works.”

Schatz pointed to the Hawaii Department of Health’s initial skepticism of mandatory mask wearing and refusals to conduct widespread coronavirus testing as mistakes early on in the pandemic.

The follies continued, he said, as officials became complacent while infection rates on the islands were low. During that time, he said, state and county governments should have ramped up their contact tracing workforce and implemented a cohesive public information campaign to explain to residents their role in stopping the virus from turning the islands into an uncontrolled hotspot.

“This is probably our last wake-up call.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

Hawaii is now in the midst of a surge of new COVID-19 infections. Hundreds of cases are discovered daily — mostly on Oahu, the state’s most populous island — hospital beds are filling up and much of the population is now under a second mandatory stay-at-home order that, combined with a travel quarantine that has devastated the tourism industry, will only further cripple an already reeling economy.

“Our response has been objectively terrible,” Schatz said.

“It comes down to whether or not you feel a sense of urgency about what’s happening to our community,” he said. “At the beginning of this process I said that we needed the government to move at the speed of the virus, and I think over the last couple weeks we’ve learned that we did not meet that test.

“The current shutdown and the measures being put into place still give us a fighting chance to minimize the pain, but this is probably our last wake-up call.”

Ige declined to be interviewed for this story but said in an emailed statement Sunday that responding to the coronavirus has been challenging in many ways, not just in Hawaii but all over the world.

“Since the pandemic first hit Hawaii, we launched a response that had some of the best results in the world in terms of controlling the virus and limiting the number of cases and fatalities. The mayors and I worked closely together to direct our efforts, and I was incredibly proud of the way our community responded,” he said.

The recent surge significantly stressed resources and the response effort, including ramping up contact tracing and providing more data, Ige said.

Contact Tracing: An ‘Inexcusable’ Failure

Like many others in the state, Schatz is troubled by the health department’s continued reluctance to implement a robust contact tracing program, which most experts agree is necessary to contain the spread of the virus and reopen the economy.

A contact tracer’s job is to identify and alert people who have been in close proximity to individuals infected with COVID-19 so that they can take proper precautions to self-quarantine and limit further contagion.

In May, when Hawaii was seeing only a handful of new cases per day, the state received a $50 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ramp up contact tracing in the islands. Schatz also worked with a former staffer, Dr. Aimee Grace at the University of Hawaii, to develop a partnership between the school and the state health department to train hundreds of new contact tracers, who could be mobilized immediately if there was a surge in infections.

Schatz said it appears most of those people were never hired.

Medical technicians show people how to administer self-tests for COVID-19 during a free testing event at the Waimanalo District Park, Friday, August 28, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Medical technicians show people how to administer self-tests for COVID-19 during a free testing event at Waimanalo District Park. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Top officials at the health department, including Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, consistently reassured the public and state lawmakers that they had enough contact tracers to take on the virus when in fact they were misleading almost everyone

Not only were they not using the newly trained workforce from UH, Schatz said, there are serious questions about how they spent the $50 million in federal aid.

“In their heart of hearts they never really wanted to engage seriously with contact tracing,” Schatz said of the health department. “They don’t believe in it to the extent that many experts around the world believe in it. I know that it’s difficult and I know that it’s not the only thing we need to do, but our failure in that area is inexcusable, especially since they told me and other leaders that they had it under control.”

As for the $50 million, Schatz said he knows the state submitted a plan to the CDC for how to spend the money, but he hasn’t heard much since then about how the funds were used or if they were even spent at all.

Now, California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who chairs the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has sent a letter to Ige demanding answers about how that $50 million was spent. She wants to know how Hawaii went from near best to worst in terms of responding to the pandemic.

Schatz said he is not aware of a similar push for answers coming out of the Senate, and that he doesn’t intend to initiate that kind of an oversight query. 

“One of our great public health and moral failures is what’s happening with the Pacific Islander community.” — Brian Schatz

Schatz is equally concerned about how the state and counties are spending $1.25 billion in federal funds that were allocated to Hawaii as part of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

Schatz said the money is being spent “in a painfully slow way,” and that if officials don’t get the funds out the door before the end of the year they’ll have to return it to the federal treasury.

There’s at least $100 million for rental subsidies that has yet to be spent, Schatz said, and another $100 million that the state received to buy more personal protective equipment that’s barely been touched. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his administration are experiencing similar problems, and has yet to spend most of the money in a $25 million fund it set aside to help individuals who are suffering financially as the pandemic continues to ravage the economy.

For his part, Schatz said he has asked the governor directly to provide him with a full accounting of how the state is spending the federal dollars, but he has yet to receive the data.

Another concern are the high rates of infection and death among non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, who make up about 30% of coronavirus cases while only representing 4% of the population. Pacific Islanders are also dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the state.

“One of our great public health and moral failures is what’s happening with the Pacific Islander community,” Schatz said. “There are public health interventions that can work, but they take time to spin up because you need trusted community partners and you need language and cultural competency. But all of that work is a lot harder and a lot less satisfying if you’re trying to win a news cycle.”

Politics Are Interfering

Local politics have played too big a role already in the pandemic, Schatz said, adding that it’s time for everyone to set their personal aspirations aside so that they can focus on their jobs.

The senator doesn’t like the way state and local officials have been delivering information by hosting their own competing press conferences. He said there’s a lack of consistency, which can lead to disagreement and confusion that then gets amplified in the press as journalists struggle to get answers to seemingly straightforward questions.

“Since the pandemic first hit Hawaii, we launched a response that had some of the best results in the world in terms of controlling the virus and limiting the number of cases and fatalities.” — Gov. David Ige

Already there have been a number of high profile spats, including between Ige and his lieutenant governor, Josh Green, an emergency room doctor who has been critical of the health department’s strategy to contain the virus from the beginning.

The rift between Ige and Green, who plans to run for governor in 2022, was so bad that early in the pandemic he was banned from participating in the state’s recovery effort. While the two have said they have set aside their differences, Green has not shied away from calling on one of Ige’s top health officials, Park, to step aside.

Schatz acknowledged that he’s inserted himself as a mediator on occasion, and has conducted a “fair amount of shuttle diplomacy between principals” to ensure everyone remains diligent rather than dysfunctional. He declined to name the people he was referring to.

“I think that people tend to step up and behave better when the crisis is real,” Schatz said. “It’s possible that these alarming numbers are going to cause our public leaders to understand that there’s no room for error, there’s no room for ego and there’s no room for confusion.”

Schatz is not the only member of Hawaii’s federal delegation who’s worried about the state’s response to the pandemic. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard began criticizing the Ige administration and the Department of Health in April over officials’ slow response to the virus.

Gabbard called on Ige to fire Anderson and Park, or to resign and let Green take over. Gabbard renewed her attacks on Anderson and Park this month as infections spiked, the state lost control and more people died.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard press conference announcing a future congressional inquiry into the whistleblower at the Department of Health, Epidemiologist Dr. Jessica Smith’s accusations about the lack of contact tracing staff. August 14, 2020
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been unafraid to use her bully pulpit to call out the Ige administration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Similar to Schatz, the congresswoman was upset with DOH’s lack of an effective contact tracing program. 

“This is your responsibility,” Gabbard told Ige in a public message posted on Twitter. “Your Health Director is keeping hundreds of trained contact tracers ‘on the bench’ because he doesn’t think they’re needed. Meanwhile we have the highest infection rate in the nation. This is gross negligence. Anderson & Park need to go.”

Schatz refused to talk about whether a shake-up is needed, saying that he didn’t want to discuss personnel matters publicly.

“There’s only one governor at a time,” Schatz said. “I don’t mind criticizing individual actions or our overall approach and talking about a smart way forward, but I don’t want to get into questions related to the governor’s chain of command or a mayor’s chain of command.”

Not everything is terrible, Schatz said. There are some actions that seem to be headed in the right direction.

He specifically highlighted a decision by Caldwell and city officials to launch their own contact tracing program to help get a handle on the outbreak as a sign of progress. He said he was touched, too, by a recent decision by a group of kumu hula to implement  a COVID-19 kapu, or set of rules, aligned with best health practices to help slow the spread of the virus.

“We understand that this is an enormous job, and that it can’t be accomplished by any one cabinet member or any one expert,” Schatz said. “When we get hit by a hurricane or other natural disaster we take whatever help comes from the government, but we also take care of each other at the community level.

“Everybody’s got a role in stopping the spread of COVID. Everybody.”

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